Public Safety

Back From ‘The Walking Dead’ with the County’s Help

At her lowest point, she was blacking out from doing so much methamphetamine. She barely weighed 100 pounds. She was stealing, skipping school, running away from home, hurting her family, letting drugged-out acquaintances give her tattoos. It took some time and determination, but with the help of San Diego County Juvenile Court and Probation, she ultimately made a complete turnaround.

“I was an acting-out drug addict. I was horrible. I’m not like that anymore,” says Anakaren Ruano, now 19. The Vista resident has been sober for a year and a half, has successfully completed probation and is now rebuilding her life.

Ruano told her inspiring story recently, while participating in a tattoo removal program run through San Diego County Probation. Her struggles illustrate how difficult it can be for young people to escape the lure of drugs, even after multiple stints in juvenile hall and close supervision by Probation and the Court. She hopes others grappling with family troubles, strong emotions, and addiction can learn what she did: Change is possible; there can be a bright future after dark years.

The downward spiral

“I hated myself more than anything. ‘The Walking Dead,’ I was like that,” she says. “When I was using, I seriously thought I was going to die.”

Ruano says her parents divorced when she was young and she unfairly blamed her mother, who had custody, for tearing the family apart. She started cutting herself in middle school. Next, she began smoking marijuana. It seemed to take away some of the pain she was feeling.

“I used to say, ‘I’m never going to do anything else, no other drugs,’” she says.

But soon enough, she made an exception for ecstasy and alcohol. She was doing ecstasy every day and her memory was gone.

She’d always drawn the line at doing meth, heroin and crack. But one day, tired from drinking alcohol, she tried meth.

“That one hit, it was the most amazing feeling,” Ruano said. You want to chase that high. You feel invincible. I started doing it every day.”

She fought constantly with her mother at home, and one day it escalated into physical violence. Ruano found herself arrested on a battery charge, and that was her entry into the juvenile court system. She was 15.

Locked up and on probation

She estimates she was locked up at least nine more times in the next four years for other offenses.

Ruano says early on she did her best to “play” the juvenile court system to avoid harsher sentencing or extensions for probation. She did this by saying what she thought judges or officers wanted to hear and by timing her ecstasy drug use well before she knew she had to submit to a drug test. After she had been in and out of Juvenile Hall and on probation for several years, she says, she didn’t even care enough to try to fool judges or probation officers.

That’s because when she moved on to meth, she always failed her drug testing for probation. She was enrolled in several probation programs to help her stay off drugs including family counseling for her and her mother in court, a group home, and a continuous remote alcohol monitoring device.

Sometimes she could stop using drugs for long stretches, like when she had the monitoring device on. But as soon as they took it off, she went back to meth.

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“I was constantly blacking out for like two days and it freaked me out. What was I doing for two days?” she says.

Getting tattoos was one of those things. She and a “freestyle” tattoo artist would smoke a lot of meth and then she’d allow him to give her a free tattoo. She had eight done while she and the tattoo artist were under the influence. She cringes now when she thinks back at her lack of respect for her own body.

The tattoos she got were crude and shaky, and she grew to hate them. They embarrassed Ruano especially when she finally made a decision to make over her life.

Road to sobriety

To be clear, kicking drugs was not a decision she made willingly. It was a last resort program the Juvenile Court imposed on her. She first served 2 ½ months in Juvenile Hall and then was sent to a residential drug treatment program in Santa Ana.

“For the first month or so, I didn’t want to change,” she recalls. “I used to think changing your life completely was impossible. I didn’t know how to live sober.”

Then, while she was there, another addict sneaked in some methamphetamine and showed it to her. She says she craved it but she convinced the fellow resident to flush it.

“One day, I woke up and didn’t want to do it,” Ruano says, but adds that it remains a daily struggle.

She says two things keep her straight. One, not wanting to waste the effort she’s made in coming so far. And two, her boyfriend, also a recovering addict. They support each other’s sobriety.

“We remind ourselves that we’re so much better than that. We don’t ever have to go back,” Ruano says.

Now, her circle of friends is smaller and they are sober, she says. She is also rebuilding trust with her family. Her mother still finds it tough to think of her as an addict, and her younger sister was really traumatized watching Ruano pretty much killing herself with drugs.

While at the drug treatment center, she decided to catch back up in school. She’d always done well in school when she applied herself and wasn’t skipping school, but her high school told her she was too far behind. She earned her General Education Development certificate, but she wanted to graduate with her class. The school listed all the things she’d need to do and told her it wasn’t realistic for her to get it done in time to graduate with her classmates.

Those words only challenged Ruano to prove them wrong. She says she started powering through the work and bought her prom tickets in advance. She worked really hard to catch up. She even participated in the Upward Bound college preparatory program at Cal State San Marcos

She says she was sure some of her classmates were thinking then, “She’s just a tweaker.” They assumed she wouldn’t return. By catching back up, she was answering them with, “Anakaren is back.” She attended prom, and on graduation day she just kept saying, “Yes, I did it, I did it!”

A new future

Ruano is now taking classes at a community college and she is taking a heavy load of 17 units. She is majoring in criminology. She hopes to earn her bachelor’s degree and get a job working as a juvenile probation officer. Eventually, she wants to earn a master’s degree, while working, she says.

Her juvenile probation record was sealed and expunged last year when she finally finished probation.

“I seriously have never felt more alive now. I carry myself with confidence now,” Ruano says.

While still on probation, she heard about a program where she could have her tattoos removed for free and she applied for it and was accepted. Now, she’s starting the process to get them lasered off and she couldn’t be more grateful.

She is looking forward to someday not wearing sleeves or covering up her back.

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After she’d been sober for 17 months, she went back to visit Juvenile Hall Probation Officer Cary Milam to show him her transformation. She’d gotten to know him over the years she spent there and says he always seemed to care.

“He’s seen every stage of my drug life, as a little pothead to a spaced out ecstasy girl to a meth addict,” she says. “No matter how many times I came back, he never gave up on me.”

Milam, 41, who has worked for Probation for 6 years, said he often becomes the person detainees can talk to when they are in juvenile hall.

“The main thing in working with females is I don’t think a lot of them have a lot of positive males in their lives,” he said.

Milam said he attended Ruano’s high school graduation on his day off, but tried to blend into the crowd. She spied him though and thanked him in her acceptance speech.

“She looked at me and we both started crying,” he says, though he says he quickly looked out a window so no one would notice. He says he was embarrassed that she had thanked him rather than her mother and sister.

When she visited him, he told her she was doing a good job and was proud of her. He says he thinks she’ll go far if she stays sober.

Ruano hopes to speak to other kids about the dangers of drugs. She says she hates shows like “Breaking Bad” because it romanticizes methamphetamine, and people don’t really realize how much drug dealers destroy people’s lives like hers.

So, if she gets a job working at Juvenile Hall and sees a girl like she was, what will she tell her?

“Don’t be curious about drugs,” Ruano says. “I used to say, I’m never going to become this but you lose control before you know and once you do, it’s too late.”

 

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact